Monday, October 1, 2018

Lessons learned looking for deer

Lesson 1: Cover your face

Over the summer, our family was out camping, and we noticed a small herd of deer wandering through the campground. Our three kids figured they'd practice some stalking (they were pretty bored), so they put on their camo shirts and pants, and snuck off towards the three does and the forked-horn buck that were grazing about 100 yards from our campsite. The results were predictable - the deer were tame enough to let them get within about 20 yards, but too smart to let them get closer.

But afterwards, our eldest decided that he wanted to practice stalking me. The game was that I would pretend to just be staring off into space, occasionally looking around, and if anything he was doing was obvious, if I saw him making a clear movement or if something about his presence jumped out at me, he had to start over.

And I actually learned something while being stalked by an 11-year-old that I hadn't expected: his face and hands really showed up. He tried sneaking in on his belly, and from 20 yards I couldn't distinguish his camo clothes at all. But his pale face and bare hands were almost luminescent compared to the dark foliage around him, and were by far the most noticeable part of his body.

That was when I bought all three of us ghilly hats and camo gloves.

The hats look pretty ridiculous, and they fog up your glasses, but they hide your face well, break up your form, and maybe just as important, they keep out the mosquitos. (They're almost worth it just for that last.)

Lesson 2: Stop moving

When you spot a deer, the very, very first thing you want to do is simple: stop moving. Period. Freeze. Don't move a muscle, until you figure out what's going on and have made a plan.

Surprisingly, this can be harder said than done. My first instinct is apparently to shrink back behind the nearest cover. But that movement into hiding attracts a deer's attention, and has cost me several opportunities. In contrast, when I've just stayed still, even when the deer totally had me, it generally didn't spook.

When I was hunting down in southern Oregon this last September, Chris Zornes and I were approaching a watering hole where we were hoping to setup for the evening. We were early enough that we weren't expecting to find any deer there, but about a hundred yards out, we spotted five or six deer milling around the hole. They were all does and fawns, so far as we could tell, but we still didn't want to spook them off. We stayed at a distance until they appeared to leave, then moved closer.

About 40 yards out from the hole, downwind, I was moving from one clump of brush to another, when two does and a fawn suddenly walked out from some brush near the hole, and I was caught totally in the open, moving. This time, at least, I managed to freeze, and went motionless. The lead doe caught something, and stared at me, but didn't spook. When she looked away for a moment, I moved slowly to put a small tree between us. It wouldn't hide me complely, but at least it would break up my form. The three deer stayed there for several minutes before the lead doe finally got suspicious and cut a circle around behind us, to get downwind. She was about 10-15 yards away when she finally got a whiff of our scent, and then she (and the rest of the herd) bolted.

The next day, I didn't exercise as much control, and ended up blowing a stalk. I'd jumped a doe and a small buck, but the buck stopped about 80 yards away on a hillside, and after a few minutes, I watched him settle down under a tree. He had an excellent view of the country around him, but after some thought, I was able to work out a path that would keep me mostly downwind and mostly screened to within 30 yards, which is about my range for an ethical shot. So I got down on my belly, and started crawling. I'd closed to 50 yards, checking periodically to make sure he hadn't moved, when I had to cross an open area. There was some brush blocking his view of that opening, so I started slowly crawling forward. Several feet out, I glanced his direction, and realized that he'd stood up and moved a few yards. From this new vantage point, his view wasn't blocked at all, and he was staring right at me. Without thinking, I scooted back behind the nearest bush - maybe the dumbest thing I could have done. He looked at me for five seconds, and then disappeared up the hill. I don't know if freezing would have kept him from getting spooked, but pulling back certainly put the icing on the cake.

Lesson 3: Look for the other deer

When you spot a deer, before you do anything, look for the other deer around it. Usually deer aren't traveling by themselves, so when you see one, there are probably more. It's surprisingly easy to get so focused on the one you're looking at that you miss the others standing a few feet away.

This happened to me the only time (so far) that I've actually taken a shot at a deer. It was in a spike-or-better unit down in Oregon, and on our fourth day of hunting, Chris and I saw a small but legal deer standing a short ways off the road. We stopped his truck, and the deer didn't move. I felt a little awkward about shooting a spike - he didn't have spots, but he wasn't much more than a largish fawn. But it would have been my first deer, and I wasn't about to turn it down. So I got out of the truck, eased out my bow, and ranged him. 20 yards. This was going to be easy.

Then he started to move away. I wasn't sure how far, but he stopped after a few yards, and I guessed he was maybe at 25. I didn't want to take the time to re-range, so I put his shoulder blades between my 20 and 30 yard pins, and let fly. I couldn't quite tell where the arrow went, but he jumped and kicked, and ran about 10 yards before stopping and looking back.

I immediately grabbed for another arrow, to see if I could get a follow-up shot. Right as I nocked it, I finally noticed that he was being followed by another doe, and a much larger fork. They had been standing there in plain sight this whole time, and Chris and I had both totally missed them. Not being sure whether my first arrow had gone home, I didn't want to take a shot at the fork, so I ignored him, and tried to maneuver for a second shot on the spike. But while I was trying to get into position, they decided to move - quickly this time - and were gone.

We eventually found my arrow, and it was completely clean - no blood on it at all. Our best guess is that he was closer than I'd believed, and that I shot over his back: it must have touched him just enough to give him the willies and make him jump. But if I'd kept my eyes open, I would have seen the fork, and given their direction of travel, probably would have had time to range him correctly.

Lesson 4: Screen your form

When you're looking through the forest for deer, by far the easiest thing to see is movement. After that, it's something distinctive, usually their ears, sometimes their tail. But if the deer is motionless, in the shadows, and they're screened by some brush, they're surprisingly hard to see.

The only benefit is that this can also work in our favor. Animal brains recognize movement, and they recognize form, so when you move slowly (it has to be very slowly), and break up your form, you can make it much harder for them to realize there's a human standing there. When stalking a deer, if you keep something between you and your quarry - a rock, a tree trunk, a small bush - even if you're partially visible, you have a much better chance that the deer will look right past you.

To drive this point home, I recommend that you try sneaking up on someone in the woods sometime. (Not your wife. Not if yours is anything like mine and you don't enjoy sleeping on the couch.)

Down in Oregon, Chris and I had split up to do some still hunting - he was going to take one ridge, and I was going to take the other. An hour or so later, I saw that he'd crossed over onto my ridge, and was walking up towards me, maybe two hundred yards away. He sat down to glass, and I decided to see how close I could get before he spotted me. I knew it couldn't be very close, because I had to cross a whole bunch of open area, but I figured I'd give it a shot.

I approached him from the side, walking slowly, in the open sunlight. There was a small tree about 15 feet to his right, and I put that between us. As I walked he glanced a time or two in my direction, and I thought for sure he'd spot me, but he gave no sign of recognition, so I kept moving slowly, putting my feet down as quietly as I could. After 10 minutes or so, I was standing just 15 feet from him, behind the tree, and I had all the reward I could hope for when I stepped from behind the tree and watched him jump half out of his skin.

Absent a buddy who's not paying attention, try sometime to see how close you can sit to a well-traveled trail, without the hikers seeing you. I've had folks out scouting pass 10 yards from where I was sitting, lightly screened, without noticing I was there. (I've also been the guy feeling the surge of adrenaline when I realize there's another hunter sitting only a short distance away.)

Lesson 5: Watch your silhouette

I was still hunting one sunny morning when I spotted a deer's silhouette moving on the far side of some brush about 40 yards away, followed shortly by two more. I was out in the open, but in the shade, and I figured that the same brush screening them would screen me, so I slowly moved towards the only opening where they could come out. Several minutes passed, and they never appeared - and I never did see them again.

Only afterwards, when I was thinking about it, did I realize that even though (a) there was brush between me and the deer, and (b) I was in the shade, right behind me was a bright, golden, sunny field. Even through the brush, my moving and shaded silhouette would have stood out like a drag queen at church.

Lesson 6: Noise disappears faster than scent

Yeah, yeah, if you've read this far, you know this, right? So did I. But it's one thing to know it in theory, and another to actually watch deer react to your smell, while you're watching them.

Chris and I had decided to setup at a watering hole in southern Oregon - the same watering hole I mentioned above. We parked his truck about a quarter mile away, and walked in along the main trail, with the idea that it would be quieter than approaching through the brush on the other side. I expressed some concern that the deer coming in on this trail would hit our scent, but Chris (who has been hunting the area for close to 15 years) said, "Nah, I don't think that they pay too much attention to human scent around here. It's just too common."

We got close to the hole, and split up. Chris camped out on a hillside slightly above the hole, and I followed a deer trail up a small draw, moved about 15 yards out, and setup in some brush, well hidden.

An hour later, I watched a small herd of does come down another trail towards the hole. They were upwind of my position, but about sixty yards away, they hit our back trail, and every one of them immediately stopped. They milled around for about five minutes, looking for the human predators they could obviously smell, before deciding that a drink wasn't worth it, and they bailed.

About 15 minutes later, another herd came down the draw. They passed within 15 yards of me, still upwind, but then the lead doe hit my back trail. She nearly jumped out of her skin. She looked around desperately, trying to spot me, and then bailed. Oddly enough, the other three deer didn't immediately follow her. They milled around for a few minutes, afraid to go further, but reluctant to leave. One of the fawns actually put its nose down on the path I had taken, and began to follow it right up to where I was sitting. About then, the lead doe started wheezing loudly, from about a hundred yards back up the draw. It was a sound I had never heard a deer make before, and I can only imagine that she was warning them, insisting that they follow her and get out. They were obviously thirsty, because they didn't want to leave the hole without a drink, but eventually they took her warning, and disappeared. None of them ever spotted me, but there was no doubt they knew I was there.

We didn't see any bucks that night, but the lesson was clear: we should have cared more about whether a deer would smell us on the main trail, and less about whether they would have heard us in the brush. The noise would have been long gone by the time we were situated; but the scent lasted.

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